The first games of an NBA season don’t carry the prestige of opening day in baseball or the opening week of the NFL season. There’s nothing poetic about them, no national celebration that includes new songs from our favorite country singers. The start of the NBA season is simply the first chapter in a book that can seem neverending.
Still, it’s always nice to welcome back the league. Answers to the big questions won’t come for months — can the Heat repeat, can Derrick Rose return to form, can Kobe do the same, can the Timberwolves make the playoffs — but there’s always a chance for memorable moments. As the 2014 season begins, a look back at some top opening nights from the past:
October 12, 1979: That date is correct. When people talk about how the season used to end a lot earlier, much of it has to do with the fact they started playing games much earlier (the 1980 season ended on May 16). Magic Johnson made his debut and the Lakers defeated the San Diego Clippers 103-102 and Magic created one of his iconic moments, even though it came after the game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit a game-winning hook at the buzzer and Magic reacted as if the Lakers had just won Game 7 of the Finals instead of Game 1 of the regular season. Magic mauled Kareem, hugging the big man who acted like the shot and victory was no big deal. Kareem later told Magic he couldn’t react like that after every victory or they’d never last but it was a sign that Magic brought something different to the game.
October 30, 1981: Denver 134, Golden State 121. They don’t make many games like this anymore — except, of course, when the Nuggets and Warriors still play. The most interesting thing about this high-scoring affair? Even with all of those points, only two players — Alex English and Dan Issel — scored more than 20 points. Denver had seven players hit double-figures, Golden State eight. Bernard King and Joe Barry Carroll led the Warriors with 17 points each.
October 26, 1984. Michael Jordan’s legend actually probably started when he hit that jumper against Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Finals, but his NBA career started here, in a 109-83 victory over the Washington Bullets. Jordan’s game? 16 points, 7 assists, six rebounds. He shot 5-for-16. Fortunately for Chicago, Orlando Woolridge and Quintin Dailey carried the Bulls and their frightened rookie with 28 and 25 points, respectively. (Sadly, both Woolridge and Dailey died young, Woolridge at 52, Dailey at 49).
October 25, 1985. The 1985-86 Celtics proved to be one of the great teams in NBA history. Talk to enough drunk guys in green T-shirts with bad accents and you might be convinced they were the best team in NBA history. They at least have a claim. Boston went 67-15, lost one — one — game at home all year and cruised past Houston in the NBA Finals. Larry Bird was at the peak of his powers. So were McHale and Parish. Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson played perfectly together and were completely in sync when whining about calls. And Bill Walton emerged after years of injury to play a crucial role off the bench, the final injury-free season he would ever have. But…Boston lost the season opener. New Jersey defeated the Celtics 113-109 in overtime. Bird had a triple-double with 21 points, 12 boards and 10 assists — and eight steals! — but Greg Kite went scoreless. Buck Williams led the Nets with 23 and Michael Ray Richardson — who would get suspended later in the season — had 16 points, seven steals and six assists. Boston went on to win 17 of its next 18.
November 3, 1989. Lowe! Murphy! Lohaus! Roth! First game in Timberwolves history. It’s still jolting to realize this game was played 24 years ago. The Wolves have won a playoff series in one season. 2004. It all started with a 106-94 loss in Seattle. Tyrone Corbin led the way with 20 points, Scott Roth, yes, had 19. Dale Ellis led Seattle with 33.
November 2, 1990. The insane 1991 Nuggets started their year with a 162-158 loss against Golden State. No overtimes. Orlando Woolridge again makes an appearance with 37 for Denver, which went 20-62 under mad scientist Paul Westhead, giving up an astounding 130.8 points per game.
November 1, 1991. Houston defeated the Lakers 126-121 in double overtime, despite 37 points from James Worthy. Magic Johnson missed this game, but no one knew at the time he missed it because he had already been told he’d been diagnosed with HIV. Strange thing about this game: Someone named Demetrius Calip scored two points for the Lakers in 15 minutes. I thought I knew every player in Lakers history from 1980-2013. I have never heard of Demetrius Calip. He played seven games in the NBA. All with the Lakers in 1992. He scored 11 points in his career.
November 6, 1992. Shaq’s NBA debut. Orlando defeated Miami 110-100 but Shaquille O’Neal only scored 12 points with 18 boards. The big star? Nick Anderson with 42 points. Although, in what could have been seen as a sign of what was to come on the biggest stage of all three years later, Anderson only went 5 for 12 from the free throw line. Shaq actually hit 4 of 7 from the line. Former Gopher great Willie Burton led the Heat with 23.
October 31, 1997. The Rick Pitino Era begins in glorious fashion as the Celtics beat the two-time defending champion Bulls 92-85. Great things awaited Pitino’s men. Antoine Walker was the best player on the court with 31 points. Pervis Ellison grabbed one rebound in four minutes. And Jordan hit only 7 of 23 from the floor but still scored 30 points, thanks to 16 free throws.
October 28, 2003. The peak of the Kobe-Shaq war. In the offseason, LA signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton and were overwhelming favorites to win the title. Some might say they would have won if Malone hadn’t injured his knee. Anyway. At the start of the year, Kobe — who had been arrested in the offseason on rape charges — sat out with an injury as LA steamrolled Dallas 109-93. Kobe had told Phil Jackson he wouldn’t put up with Shaq’s comments. In camp Shaq had said the “full team was here” — even though Kobe was not. Kobe then called Shaq fat. Kobe said the two had put it behind them by the Dallas game. But…no. They were done. And it became official at the end of the year.
October 31, 2006. The defending champion Heat start their defense with a home game against the Bulls. Raise the banners. Salute the refs who played such a key role in the victory over Dallas in the Finals. And lose 108-66.
October 26, 2010. Remember when the Heat weren’t champions? When it was fun to root against them because they’d inevitably lose? That was a fun year. The LeBron era started in Boston with an 88-80 loss against the Celtics. Things have changed since.
The new season starts tonight. Indiana hosts the Magic. The Heat — the two-time champs — open against the Bulls and probably won’t lose by 42. And the Kobe-less Lakers with guys like Wes Johnson playing host the Clippers. It’s doubtful anything real memorable will happen tonight, nothing anyone will commemorate 20 years from now. But the NBA is back. And that makes it a good night.